Spooky Science: The Controversial Research On Psi

For over a century psychologists have researched psi, defined as “processes of information and/or energy exchange not currently explicable in terms of known science.” We can compare psi to a television, where we receive information without actually seeing the electromagnetic waves that transfer this information. It is similar, only that the way psi transfers information is still unknown. Psi research is in the area of parapsychology, where researchers investigate paranormal phenomena such as near-death and out-of-body experiences.

There are two types of research on psi. The first is Extrasensory Preception, which is a response to stimuli without sensory contact. This includes three types of phenomena: telepathy (a response to the mental state of another person without any sensory communication), clairvoyance (a response to an object without directly sensing it, such as, identification of an object that is hidden), and precognition (anticipation of the future without any information or ways to infer the future). The second type of research is psychokinesis – mental influence over physical events without any physical force.

Some psi research has had direct applications in real life. For example, the CIA used these studies in their Stargate Project, however, they later terminated this project. 

We can demonstrate how scientists conduct experimental research in this field using two psi experiments.

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In the Ganzfeld Experiment dealing with telepathy, the researcher separates a sender and a receiver into different rooms. They show the sender a video or an image. The sender concentrates on the stimulus shown and “sends” it to the receiver. The researcher puts the reciever in a state of sensory deprivation; they place ping-pong balls on the receiver’s eyes, shine red light in the room or play white noise through noise-cancelling headphones. They then take the receiver out of the sensory deprivation state and show them 4 videos or images. The reciever has to choose the video or image the sender “sent”. If it is purely due to chance, the receiver should have an accuracy of 25%. However, studies consistently show that receivers select the correct image or video 38% of the time. This is a small, but statistically significant occurrence.

In the Bem studies, social psychologist Daryl Bem from Cornell University studies precognition. He uses a reversed priming paradigm commonly used in psychological research. Researchers show participants two extremely negative images and instruct them to choose the one they prefer. Then, they are subliminally shown one of the pictures repeatedly; the picture is flashed on a screen for a short enough time that participants are not consciously aware that they saw it multiple times.

The hypothesis is that, when researchers show participants two extremely negative images, particpants pick the image that they would subliminally see later. The assumption here is, participants have habituated to the negative image that they would subliminally see in the future before choosing between the two negative images, and so they prefer the habituated image over the latter when they choose between the two. This implies that the participants could somehow predict which image they would subliminally see, before it happened. 

Some studies using this method seem to have produced a significant effect. However, the whole field of psi suffers from a replicability crisis – using the same technique, an experimenter finds a significant result while another experimenter does not. This has lead to a lot of questioning over the validity of psi research. 

Meta-analyses have found a very small but significant effect in psi experiments; this includes seemingly predictive physiological patterns in participants before researchers even present a stimulus. Despite this, researchers and psychologists remain skeptical, rightfully so. Since the research claims are huge, it should require extraordinary evidence to believe them. Especially considering the implications it has on psychological research, and science as a whole.

Skeptics of psi research have also raised several issues. They often argue that there is a potential experimenter effect. For instance, the experimenters could have somehow influenced the participants or the data analysis, producing a significant effect in these studies. Others point to the lack of replicability in the field. 

A recent article published on this topic raises another important issue. In psi experiments, there is no falsifiable claim since there is no clear distinction between the experimenter and the participants. For instance, in the ganzfeld experiments, they assume that the participants are sending each other information. But if psi is true, the experimenter himself could be sending information to the participants through the same process. This violates the principles of scientific enquiry since the researcher should have no influence on the experiment. 

Finally, if psi does not exist this would mean that for over a century, researchers found significant results based on methodological errors and questionable research practices. On the other hand, if psi is real, it would mean that human consciousness can interact with the environment beyond the known boundaries of space and time and causality. In this case, we could then regard psi as something similar to quantum physics; as in, psi could be a phenomenon that doesn’t fit within our common-sense view of the world, and cannot be fully explained yet. 

To conclude, psi is a controversial area of psychology that is widely criticised and rarely spoken about within mainstream psychology. However, approaching the topic from a neutral perspective and using more scientifically rigorous experiments and methodology might lead to better and more reliable research within the field. 

Written by Fatma Waleed